As Jack Flaherty walked off the mound after his second major league inning, his team trailed 3-0. After fellow rookie Harrison Bader put the Cards back in the game with a two-run homer, Flaherty gave those runs back in the bottom of the third, and St Louis still trailed by three.
All that was left for the offense to do was to keep battling back.
It’s a position this team has found itself in frequently this season, so it should surprise no one that the hitters are almost comfortable in the situation. Last night, the 27 batters that came to the plate with the team trailing hit a combined .360 (9 for 25) and slugged .840 (3 triples and 2 home runs). They are just coming off a month (August) where they trailed in nearly 40% of their plate appearances, yet hit .291/.365/.497 when they trailed – especially when they trailed by three runs.
What, exactly, is magic about a three-run deficit I can’t really say, but over the course of the year – and especially in the second half – seeing that three-run deficit lights a fuse in the Cardinal offense. Last month they hit .397/.471/.712 in 86 plate appearances trailing by three runs. Since the All-Star Break, in 106 plate appearances, that line is .370/.438/.696. For the season, 254 Cardinal hitters have stood at the plate facing a three-run deficit. They are hitting .316/.379/.600.
Fifteen times this year St Louis has trailed by three runs in a game – but by no more than three runs. They lost all of the first nine of those games. They have now won 5 of the last 6.
The 11 runs on 15 hits suggests that this team didn’t do all their hitting and scoring in August – where they hit .280 and scored 5.79 runs per game. In the season’s second half, the Cards are scoring 5.22 runs per game with a .276 team batting average.
Not all of their numbers are robust, but every day manager Mike Matheny is tasked with choosing which three of his five impact outfield bats (and maybe six, now, if you count Bader) to put in the lineup. Last night Tommy Pham, Dexter Fowler and Jose Martinez all sat, while Bader, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty all starred – to some degree or other – in the Cardinal victory.
Perhaps the most impressive of the three was Piscotty – who has been a little bit buried on the bench lately. He had three hits, including a home run and a triple that was almost a home run – with those last two hits capping excellent at bats.
On the triple that began the comeback from the three-run deficit, Piscotty took all of the first three pitches from Hunter Strickland – finding himself backed up in the count 1-2. He then fouled off five consecutive pitches before finally launching Strickland’s ninth pitch off the padding on the top of the right-center field wall.
On the home run, Piscotty turned on a 2-2 fastball that Albert Suarez ran right in under his fists. Both the discipline that Stephen showed against Strickland and the surprising quickness he showed against Suarez are difficult to maintain when you’re not getting regular at bats.
Since his recall from Memphis, Piscotty has only gotten into 10 games – 7 as a starter. He is nonetheless hitting .357 (10 for 28) and slugging .643 (one triple and 2 home runs) in those opportunities.
Piscotty also began the game-tying eighth inning rally with a single to left. The Cardinals were trailing 5-4 at the time. Piscotty for the season is a .324 hitter (11 for 34) when he bats with his team trailing by one run.
Kolten Wong picked up in September where he left off in August. After hitting .347 last month, Wong tacked on two more hits last night. He is hitting .308 for the season, and .316 (48 for 152) in the second half.
Wong’s RBI single in the ninth was his fifth game-winning hit of the year, tying him with Paul DeJong for fourth highest on the team. Dexter Fowler and Jedd Gyorko are tied for the team lead with 9 each, followed by Yadier Molina with 8.
Kolten’s other hit came with two outs in the third with the Cards still down, 3-0. It put him on base for Bader’s home run. No one on the team has responded to that three-run deficit like Kolten Wong. His 1-for-2 last night when trailing by three follows on the heels of his 5-for-8 August in that situation. Since the All-Star Break, Kolten is 6 for 11 (.545) when trailing by three, and for the year he is 10 for 16 (.625) when staring at a three-run deficit.
Paul DeJong never stays down for very long. After his most recent six-game hitting streak, DeJong went hitless in his last two games. But DeJong (who finished August hitting .297 with a .508 slugging percentage and a team leading 20 runs batted in in 27 games), began September with two hits – including a double – and two runs batted in. Paul has driven in a team-leading 34 runs in 45 games since the All-Star Break, while hitting .280 (53 for 189) and slugging .513 (9 doubles, a triple, and a team-leading 11 home runs).
His two-run, ninth inning double was typical of so many big hits that DeJong has gotten this year – the hit that breaks open the game. This one turned a 6-5 Cardinal lead into an 8-5 lead. For the season, when St Louis is either even in the game, or ahead by fewer than 4 runs, DeJong is hitting .356 (57 for 160) and slugging .619 (15 doubles and 9 home runs). He has driven in 30 runs in those at bats.
He still looks stiff when he runs – like he hasn’t fully recovered from that abdominal strain, but Molina still plays every day. And he hits. A single and a triple last night (yes, he ran OK on that one), bring his current hitting streak to 5 games, during which Molina is hitting .333 (7 for 21). But this is part of an even longer stretch where Molina has hit safely in 12 of 13 games, going 18 for 52 (.346) during the streak.
Yadi ended August with a .312 average for the month – and showed surprising power. He hit 5 home runs and slugged .548. For the second straight season, Yadi has turned it up a notch or two after the break. He is now hitting .305 (46 for 151) in the season’s second half.
Yadi tried to spark an earlier rally with a one-out triple in the fourth (the Cards still trailing 5-2 at the time). That didn’t pan out, but it did bring Yadi’s average to .478 (11 for 23) on the season when he bats with a three-run deficit.
The lineup shuffle that placed Kolten Wong in the leadoff spot dropped Matt Carpenter down to clean-up. While it may have helped the lineup in general, it didn’t pay any immediate benefits to Carpenter. Matt’s 0-for-4 followed tightly on the heels of his .202 August, and drops him now to just .158 (9 for 57) over his last 15 games. Carpenter – who is hitting .241 for the year – is back down to .248 (38 for 153) in the second half – albeit still with a .372 on base percentage.
Carpenter’s evening included going 0 for 3 during the portion of the game where the Cardinals trailed. Especially during the second half of the season, Carpenter has struggled to contribute hits when the Cardinals have trailed in games. And especially when the deficit is three runs or less. In his last 51 plate appearances with St Louis down by no more than 3 runs, Matt owns a .158 batting average (6 for 38). He does still contribute walks, though, as his on base percentage in those plate appearances is a still healthy .373.
Pitching in Close Quarters
When Flaherty surrendered the lead in the second inning, he continued a problematic trend that has kept the Cardinals and their suddenly prolific offense from being serious contenders. Through the month of August the Cardinal pitching staff pitched 69.2 innings with the game either tied or holding a one-run lead. They responded to those opportunities with a 6.85 ERA and a .325 batting average against. In 137.1 such innings since the All-Star Break, Cardinal pitchers have managed just a 5.77 ERA with a .292 batting average against. Brandon Crawford’s two-run homer in last night’s second inning was the twenty-seventh home run the Cardinals have given up since the All-Star Break in games they were either tied in or leading by one run.
This is not exactly a formula for success – even if you have a competitive offense.
In August, the team received only 13 quality starts in 28 games, finishing with a 4.62 ERA (4.81 by the starters, with a .297 batting average against). Since the All-Star Break, the team ERA is hovering at 4.06.
Tyler Lyons is fast approaching super-hero status. Last night’s perfect eighth inning that included two more strikeouts brings his scoreless streak to 20 games and 18.2 innings, during which he has allowed just 3 hits while striking out 25.
Sam Tuivailala gave the last run of the game in a mop-up ninth inning. Though his season’s ERA is still a fine 2.97, Sam has begun to take on water recently. He has now allowed runs in 3 of his last 5 games, giving 4 total runs in 4 total innings. His ERA sits at 4.05 in the second half (13.1 innings).
Some of this just might be due to Sam’s unfamiliarity with pitching with a lead. Since the All-Star Break, last night was only Sam’s second inning pitching with a lead – as opposed to 11 innings pitched while trailing in the game. Of the 58 batters he’s faced in the second half, he has pitched to 2 with the score tied, 11 with the Cardinals leading, and 43 while trailing in the game.
For the season, Tuivailala has an 0.92 ERA with a .132 batting average against in 19.2 innings while trailing, 9.00 with a .353 batting average against in 4 innings while tied, and 4.66 allowing a .349 batting average in just 9.2 innings with a lead.